20-year-old prodigy filmmaker draws from his troubled past
Two homophobes saw Xavier Dolan kissing a guy in the woods outside his boarding school in Quebec. One threw a punch, knocking Dolan to the ground. He was held down and beaten. They left hand-prints on his shoulders and bruises all over his body, but by chance his face was unmarked. He lied about what happened.
“I told people that I fell down the stairs. Everybody knew though.”
At the time, getting bashed was just one more incident solidifying his hatred of his boarding school. But not long after it became a major inspiration for Dolan’s first film, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother).
“My movie looks like me. My movie is me,” he says. “It’s sincere.”
And it has made an impression. J’ai tué ma mère was selected as Canada’s nomination for the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film, took home three awards from Cannes, was an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, and won Dolan the Toronto Film Critics Association’s Jay Scott Prize for emerging talent.
“When I wrote it I thought it would be of no interest,” he says. “I never expected this.”
Sitting in a hotel restaurant during TIFF, picking at an overpriced piece of salmon, the thin, almost frail 20-year-old has a unique look—horn rimmed glasses, black clothes accented with a leopard print vest, and a mop of dark hair that spills across his forehead. He responds with reflective pauses, then fires off his carefully selected phrases with chain-gun delivery and a flurry of gesticulations. But, he insists, he really doesn’t have much to speak about.
“I’m young. I don’t have a lot of things to say. I haven’t lived a lot.”
J’ai tué ma mère, a semi-autobiographical film, suggests otherwise. It’s the coming of age story of Hubert Minel, an artistic, gay youth who is struggling to live with a tacky, unrefined mother he deeply loves but cannot stand. Hubert, played by Dolan, is the fictionalized embodiment of the director at 17, angry and lonely, passionate but conflicted. The film shifts between gritty realism—dark, single shot scenes of the Minels screaming at one another—to day-glo gay sex choreographed to indie music, to slow motion fantasy shots of a bride running over an orange blanket of fallen leaves (a direct homage to one of Dolan’s favorite films, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love).
That homage worries Dolan, who frequently speaks about his fear of appearing pretentious.
“Maybe it was too underlined a bit. Maybe it was too obvious. Maybe I should have been more discreet or subtle.”
A former child actor, Dolan’s entertainment career began with a series of French films and commercials. The money he earned with those gigs helped to finance his movie, and it was during that time in his young life that he was best friends with his mother—a period his fictional counterpart longs for. And, as in the film, Dolan and his mother began butting heads when he was a teen, culminating in his being sent to boarding school.
“My character was sometimes unbearable, horrible, a terrible son,” he says, adding, “it’s the way I saw myself. I was that way.”
After graduation, at the age of 17, Dolan moved into his own apartment in Montreal to attend CEGEP.
“It was an awful experiment and I dropped out of college,” he says. “All my friends were working and studying and I was alone, so I figured I should kill time.”
So Dolan revisited a novella he had written about boy who is visited by the devil and told to kill his mother. He cut out the devil, concentrated on the boy’s mental anguish, and in three days turned the story into the first draft of J’ai tué ma mère. After three years of revisions, rejections, and unsuccessfully recruiting funding, Dolan cashed out his savings, shot the movie, and submitted it to festivals around the world.
Dolan wrote the script for his second film, Heartbreaker, while traveling by train to TIFF from Montreal.
“It’s a love duel between two friends who become infatuated with the same person. Their friendship deteriorates as they take desperate and unbelievable measures toward the object of their desire.”
He began shooting while he was still touring to promote his first film (which opens Friday), and Heartbreaker is now in post-production. It’s a less personal film, influenced by, but not based on Dolan’s life, and he worries that J’ai tué ma mère will be a tough act to follow.
“I want to do good, I want to evolve and progress, I don’t want to stagnate or do worse,” he says. “What would be worse is people saying ‘I Killed My Mother is better.’”
This story originally appeared on Macleans.ca